Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pole Day Recap

Sports is a game of inches, and after Pole Day qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both Ryan Briscoe and James Hinchcliffe will probably remember that fact for the rest of their lives.

It was only a few inches, just over nine to be exact, that gave Briscoe the pole Saturday over Hinch in the closest pole shootout in history. The Aussie's winning speed of 226.484 mph was just 23 TEN THOUSANDTHS of a second better than Hinchcliffe's 10-mile run of 226.481. That's like a Chicagoland finish, and we know how close those were!

The Fast Nine shootout -- at least for those two guys -- lived up to its billing. Let's run through all of the Fast Nine participants and a few notes on each.

There's your pole winning car!/Photo credit: Me
*Briscoe. After being buried on the speed chart for most of the week while working on other things, Briscoe had a nice practice session Friday and Saturday morning showed he was in play with the third-best time in the opening practice. He just needed one run in the shootout to put his car on the pole for the first time in his career. Indy hasn't always been the best to Briscoe, because while he will now have started in each of the top four positions that has never transferred to the race, but this year he has a great shot at improving at his career-best 5th place finish of 2007. You need to be good and have a little bit of luck to win the pole at Indy, and while Briscoe has plenty of the former he got a little bit of the latter when the sun fell behind a cloud just as he headed onto the track. Briscoe notched the 17th pole position at Indy in Team Penske history.

*Hinchcliffe. Wearing the driving gloves of his hero, the late, great Greg Moore, Hinch has the fastest time in open qualifying (225.746) and then dropped a 227 mph practice lap prior to taking the green flag in his shootout run. But like many of the other drivers, he couldn't stop a drop off in times through the course of his run. Though his first lap of 39.6571 seconds was the fastest lap of the month, he lost time to Briscoe on each subsequent lap. Still, he starts in the middle of the front row and Andretti Autosport has officially reversed its nightmarish fortunes of a year ago.

*Ryan Hunter-Reay (226.240). See above. RHR had it the worst last year as he didn't even qualify, then had to deal with the backlash when AA bought out Bruno Junqueria's ride from AJ Foyt just so he could drive the 500. Hunter-Reay was the most consistent of all drivers in the Fast Nine, with his first and last laps separated by just over .1 seconds.

*Marco Andretti (225.456). The speed Andretti showed in Fast Friday practice was just not there Saturday, but he recovered with a late run that gives him the best starting position in his seven starts at Indy. Marco has looked great in traffic all week.

 *Will Power (225.422). He couldn't muster up enough of his namesake (thanks to track announcer Dave Calabro for that one) and will start from the 5th position for the second year in a row. The points leader has never finished better than 5th at the 500 and needs to break some new ground next week to move his winning streak to four races.

*Helio Castroneves (225.172). Couldn't capture the magic as in years past and wasn't able to notch his fifth pole. Still after qualifying 16th and never being a factor in finishing 17th a year ago, he shows that a comeback could be in the works. He seems happy and confident, that usually bodes well for Helio on race day.

*Josef Newgarden (224.037). The 21-year-old Tennessean continues to impress as he was the only rookie to make his way into the Fast Nine. He seemed pretty content to be there and drove four conservative, but solid laps to earn a spot on the inside of row three. By the way, he becomes the first native of Tennessee to qualify for the 500.

*Tony Kanaan (224.751)/EJ Viso (224.422). Both drivers seemed content with taking the green flag in the shootout as required, picking up a free set of tires, and calling it a day, hence their original qualifying times are listed. I was hoping TK would take a shot at it but given the names ahead of him probably realized that it would be a tall task.

What else we learned:

*The DW12 can take a punch. There was some concern among the fanbase about the DW12 since it hadn't been crashed on an oval in actual competition. Until Saturday, Newgarden's spin in turn 4 on Wednesday was the only incident of the month, and he made only mild contact with the front stretch wall at the end of a long slide that scrubbed off all of his speed.

Saturday, Bryan Clauson and Ed Carpenter made significant contact with the turn 1 and turn 2 walls, respectively, and the car responded well as they both climbed from the car with only minor injuries. Carpenter's hit was particularly bad and while his accident left quite a debris field he was safe. Oriol Servia also crashed at the entrance to pit road and tore off the front and rear wings, but yet the tub stayed intact. All will be looking for one of the nine remaining qualifying spots on Sunday.

*Chevy's still got it. Turbogate sure is old news, isn't it? Newgarden is the only Honda among the top 10 qualifiers and they just didn't seem to have a chance Saturday. Alex Tagliani, last year's polesitter, will start 11th in what he called the most exhausting qualifying run of his career, while Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Graham Rahal (12th), Charlie Kimball (14th), Scott Dixon (15th) and Dario Franchitti (16th) could only manage mid-pack starting positions.

*Who impressed me. Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay for starters. Hinch went old school on his runs as he used the high line and made very high exits to within a foot or two of the walls in the corners. He will win a pole someday, and I am going to make the following prediction...James Hinchcliffe wins the 2012 Indianapolis 500. You heard it here first.

Rubens Barrichello was also very sharp, turning in his four best laps of the month in really harsh conditions as the temperature hit 88 degrees and the track temp was over 130 at times. He was brought along slowly all month and was given a chance to showcase his talent on his run as he barely missed out on the Fast Nine. I hope 2012 isn't a one-and-done in terms of Rubens' IndyCar or 500 career, he is learning and I think next year will be a huge factor.

*Who didn't. Who was the guy that talked about the buzz of Carpenter winning the 500? Oh yeah, that was me. They have been off the pace all month and tore up a perfectly good race car Saturday.

Neither Wade Cunningham or Mike Conway made it into the field for AJ Foyt racing, Takuma Sato will start 19th and Simon Pagenaud will start 23rd.

*What's in store for Bump Day. Still quite a few cars and driver combinations looking to get into the field, including Cunningham and Conway, as well as Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge. How will Servia, Clauson and Carpenter respond to their wrecks, and more importantly, how will their cars?

Sunday is also the chance to see the Lotuses of Jean Alesi and Simona de Silvestro hitting the track for qualifying attempts. They are the only two of what looks like the 33-car field who did not make an attempt on Saturday.

So while there might not be any bumping (so we think) there is still plenty to see at the Speedway Sunday, and personally, I think there might be some drama involved. It has to be...has there ever been a Bump Day without it?

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